Perhaps the most striking thing about Madonna‘s film W.E. is the incredible wardrobe worn by a fictionalized Wallis Simpson and King Edward VIII. The clothes and the jewelry are truly sights to behold, and the film’s costume designer Arianne Phillips will vie for an Oscar this Sunday.
However, this won’t be Phillips’s first trip to the Academy Awards. In 2005, she was nominated for Walk the Line; she was also responsible for the beautiful clothes in Tom Ford‘s A Single Man. We recently chatted with Phillips — who is also Madonna’s longtime stylist — to get the lowdown on her Oscar-nominated work.
How did you begin to conceptualize the costumes?
You always start with the script, and I do what’s called the script breakdown. It’s where you divide the script up according to how many characters are in it, what kind of scenes there are, what the descriptions are like. From there you figure out what is needed, what you need to achieve script-wise. It’s like a practical breakdown. And then the research and the meetings start with the director, in this case Madonna. We talk about her impressions and her ideas, and what the tone and the look of the film is. You have philosophical discussions maybe about who these characters were.
There’s all kinds of research that went into this because even though it’s two intertwining stories, one of the stories is actually biographical, based on real people and real events. We rooted it in what really happened with the Duke and Duchess and used that as a foundation. Madonna shared with me all kinds of books — she had a huge big box of books — that her and Alex Keshishian used when they were writing the script. She sent it to me, and I was able to pour over everything. The first thing I did was make a visual lookbook for me and for her to discuss the tone and the look of the story. And then I went on a journey of discovery from speaking to people who knew the Duke and Duchess to watching all kinds of film clips that are available online or from the UCLA archives. We have a lot of film footage from the BBC.
And then I went to various museums from the Metropolitan Musem in New York, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the Musée de la Mode, which is the fashion museum at the Louvre in Paris. I was looking at clothes that were owned by the Duke and Duchess of Windsor that were part of the museum collections, and things from fashion designers like Madame Vionnet, who Wallis Simpson was a client of. I wanted to see what those dresses looked like. Being specific about that world was very, very important to me.
How much of the period wardrobe was borrowed?
I designed everything, or they were recreations from real clothes Wallis Simpson wore. We didn’t use any clothes that Wallis Simpson or Edward owned or wore in real life because those clothes belong to museums. We recreated, based on research, a few dresses that she wore from Christian Dior — they recreated them for us. I designed some dresses and some suits, and we recreated some things from Elsa Schiaparelli. Andrea [Riseborough] had about 60 costume changes, and we made a bunch of Abby’s costumes, too. And then the other ones were mostly vintage.
What inspired the look of Abby Cornish’s modern-day character Wally?
One thing that really attracted me to this film was the arc of Abby’s character. When we meet her, she’s in an unhappy marriage. She’s at a crossroads in her life trying to have a kid; she’s trying to figure out who she is, she’s left her job. One of the beautiful things about how the character is written in the script is that she goes through an arc. With her obsession with Wallis Simpson, she starts to mirror the way that she dressed. That was really excting to see that arc. Then of course when she ends her marriage and becomes clear about who she is at the end of the movie, you see her evolution as a character, her emancipation from this nhappy marriage.
Her costumes were a combination. Wallis Simpson and Edward were from this rarified English society world of haute couture fashion and fine jewelry and tailored suits — the best of the best. Wally is from Park Avenue. She used to work at Sotheby’s, and her husband is very wealthy. She also had access in the same kind of way to beautiful things. There are some vintage pieces that have been remade, and then she has some contemporary Christian Dior, Dolce & Gabbana, Prada — things that a woman of her financial stature would wear.
I’ve worked for Madonna for almost 15 years. We have a long relationship with a lot of fashion designers, so people were very willing and generous about collaborating with us. There’s a small London designer named Issa, who Kate Middleton wears all the time, who made some dresses for Abby’s character. Ironically, a dress that Issa made for Madonna, we used on Abby in the movie and then Kate Middleton also wore that dress. So that’s a nice little royal story behind it a brief scene in the movie. I tried to use contemporary fashion since she’s a part of that world. I also designed some things, and I used some vintage pieces for her when she’s indulging in her obsession with Wallis Simpson.
Can you speak to the importance of jewelry in the film?
The first thing I knew about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor was that there had been two different auctions. There was one in 1987 of just the jewelry that was a very famous auction because the jewelry sold for beyond anyone’s expectations. It’s legendary and known in the industry. And of course the auction that our movie centered around in 1997, there’s jewelry in that auction as well. The first tihng I said to Madonna is we can’t do this movie without involving Cartier or Van Cleef & Arpels. If you remember in the middle of the story, there’s this whole montage when Edward gives Wallis the cross bracelet. He goes to the Cartier workroom, and you see him designing it. He designed a lot of jewelry along with Cartier for Wallis, and he lavished her with jewelry. It was an essential part of the story, and it was written in the script.
We reached out to Cartier, and after a discussion they agreed to work with us. They were really, really generous. They recreated 10 iconic pieces that belonged to the Duke and Duchess. They recreated them in paste, which means the settings were real but the stones were cut crystals instead of cut stones, which is just as time consming as cutting the real stones. A lot of care went into the jewelry, and recreating it took place over a long period of time.
In addition to the recreated jewelry, both Van Cleef and Cartier opened up their museum archives to us and allowed us to borrow from their vintage collections. Madonna being Madonna and having quite an impressive jewelry box herself, we were able to use some of her jewelry in the film. Neil Lane is a wonderful estate jeweler and an amazing jewelry designer based in Los Angeles who Madonna and I have collaborated with for many years. He made some beautiful jewelry for the film, including the beautiful necklce that Evgeni the Russian security gurd puts on Abby Cornish’s neck after hours at Sotheby’s. Alexis Bittar is an amazing jeweler in New York, and he made some really beautiful costme jewelry. We also got jewelry from Anna Hu, who’s a Taiwanese jeweler whose work is influenced by Wallis Simpson’s jewelry.
Wallis was not a minimalist. Not only was the jewelry written in our script, but she wore a lot of jewelry. It wasn’t just a pair of earrings — it was earrings, necklace, bracelet, rings. It was a big component of the costumes, and took a lot of coordination and development and attention to detail. Lucky for me, the film photographs beautifully and in a lot of detail, so you get to see the jewelry in the film. Oftentimes you create jewelry or shoes or things that are usually missed photographically in a film, but Madonna’s appreciation and understanding for the aesthetics made for a beautifully photographed film.
Madonna told us the recreated pieces had to be destroyed. Why is that?
Basically just like a Picasso, the Cartier jewelry owned by the Duke and Duchess has extreme value. Most of it is privately owned. Cartier does own some of it, but most of it’s privately owned. So as not to devalue the original jewelry, like a great piece of art, it’s not wise to have duplications or recreations floating around out there. Part of the deal from the get-go was that they would recreate these pieces for us, hold on to them until the film was released, and then they would destroy them.
At one point I inquired if it was possible to give Madonna the cross bracelet because it was such an important part of the film and something she would really love. Unfortunately they weren’t even allowed to do that. They couldn’t. So Cartier graciously created a bracelet unique to Madonna based on the cross bracelet, but it’s not like anyone else’s in the world.
You’ve worked with Madonna for many years. How is working on a film with her different than acting as her stylist?
The biggest diference is she doesn’t have to suffer in high heels, but she’s really been directing me for 14 years. Whether it’s a tour or an album cover, an editorial shoot for a magazine or a video, Madonna is the captain of her own ship. All the ideas start with her and her music. She invites people to collaborate with her, and help interpret and create visuals to accompany the ideas.
I’ve been lucky enough to be invited these last 14 years. It’s been an incredible ride. It was a no-brainer for me. I’ve been encouraging her — one of the many people who’s been asking her when is she going to direct. She was probably sick of hearing it, so she finally just did it. It was incredible for me. It was great to have her on my side of the camera, and also to be able to work with someone I have 14 years of fluency with creatively is a real joy. To work with a director who understands the power of costumes? No one knows better than her. She wears the costumes. She wears jewelry. She’s worn haute couture.
How would you compare working on W.E. to working on other films like Walk the Line and A Single Man?
Every film is completely different from the other. Every story you’re telling demands a different journey of research. This film was shot in London and Paris and the south of France and New York. The locations are very different, everything’s different. The actors are different, the directors are different. The thing that A Single Man and W.E. had in common was that they both had directors that understand clothes: Tom Ford and Madonna. That was great. The films, all three of them, are very different. That’s great — I don’t like repeating myself. I love the ability to come to work and do something new every day. That’s the beauty of working in film and being a filmmaker.